Q. How hard can 3D printing really be? A. Quite hard

Three-dimensional printers have been hailed as the future of how we make and design everything from phone stands to firearms. Now you can pick up one on the high street. Will Dean hooks one up to test the theory

A gun. Red blood cells. Human organs. If you’ve read any one of hundreds of reports about the potential of 3D printing it’s difficult not to be excited.

In the last year or so I’ve written two features about 3D printing and been amazed at its capabilities and optimistic about what its rise could mean for the way we consume and make things.

But despite having interviewed  the mad scientists working on  printheads that can process human cells and met the people selling mass market (ish) 3D printers for the home hobbyist, I’ve never actually laid hands on one myself.

Three-dimensional printers are fairly simple, but difficult to comprehend unless you see one in action. They print using filaments (usually plastic) which go through a heated printhead and builds an object up layer-upon-layer until you have a fully-formed thing, built from a design on your computer. It could be as simple as a plastic cube or as complicated as the parts for a bike or grandfather clock. Or any design idea you might have and want to prototype. So having written about them, and with 3D printers become more affordable and sold in stores like Maplin, I wanted to actually try one. Mainly to answer the question: “Can someone with absolutely no experience of CAD  (computer aided design programs)  or any kind of engineering use one  and make it work?”

So when Lulzbot, an American  3D printer maker approached me about spending a few months with their AO-101 printer – which was  available for UK shipping earlier this year – I asked them to ship it over forthwith. Only to be slightly petrified when it  arrived in a box almost the size of my spare room.

After a few weeks of staring cagily at the box I was finally brave enough to take the Lulzbot on. We’re now in a place, mainly thanks to Apple, where 98 per cent of home electronics just work. You take them out of their box, plug them in, ignore a few lengthy legal disclaimers and whack – you’re away. We’re not quite there yet with 3D printers. Not only did the Lulzbot come with a lengthy instruction manual, but it even had instructions for how to unpack the bloody thing: “Holding the top two-tubes, SLOWLY pull the printer upwards out of the box.” That’s half of point 5. There are 12 steps just in the unpacking instructions. We’re not in Jobs-ville anymore, Toto.

Part of that is borne from the 3D printer’s genesis as a product created by hackers and hobbyists. This is complicated stuff, borne from the RepRap 3D printing project (which aims to make machines which can replicate their own parts) and running on open source programming.Even the software is optimised for open-source operating system Linux, but – of course – comes with the correct tools for Mac and PC.

It looks pretty rough and ready, too. The model I’ve been playing with has since been replaced by the fancier looking Lulzbot Taz (see box) and you can perhaps see why from the photos. It looks like the world’s most  difficult Lego Technic, fixed together from industrial metal bars and with a huge ugly reel attachment for the ABS plastic that caused a large, gloaming shadow across my desk. But that’s not to say it doesn’t look cool, in a Weird Science kind of way. (No, you can’t print your own Kelly LeBrock.)

Once I’d followed the 12 steps of unpacking my 3D printer, I had to spend a couple of hours fixing some of the components together. And though it’s about as “out of the box and ready” as you could hope for from such a technical bit of kit, it’s still pretty fiddly  attaching the spool and so on.

After that came downloading the software to run the printer from your computer. Thankfully, Lulzbot has links for this on its website which comes with preset configurations for the A0-101. These programmes include something called Slic3r which takes standard CAD files and changes them into something called gcode files which tell the three axes of the Lulzbot which way to shimmy left right and upwards to make an object. But where do you get the object from?

Pleasingly, you don’t need a  degree in industrial design and a  working knowledge of CAD. Thanks  to the legions of home 3D print  makers, there’s a whole cadre of  websites with downloadable files.  The best of these is the gloriously named Thingiverse, which is run by Makerbot. Makerbot is probably the best known maker of home 3D printers and recently even opened its first store in Manhattan to show off the  capabilities of the hardware.

The Thingiverse has over 100,000 objects on it. It’s like an Argos catalogue where everything is free. And – even if it’s a piece of plastic junk you really don’t need – the idea of being able to choose an item you need and just press “go” in your front room is really quite a stunning one.

Thingiverse’s objects are created by other users who upload the designs which can they be taken (for free), modified, or improved by feedback from other users. The things range from bracelets to remote control cars, to robotic arms.

In that adventurous spirit, I chose to make a four-hooked plastic bag holder. (Welcome to the future!) Of course, the even more exciting thing here is mastering CAD programmes and being able to design your own products – but I was happy to stick to the basics.

The promise of a wider, corporate-led version of the Thingiverse is  interesting too. My favourite analogy for explaining the potential of 3D printing is this: imagine a very difficult to find part broke on your washing machine. Previously, that may have involved contacting either a specialist store or the manufacturer and having to either get that part shipped from the other side of the planet (probably at a high environmental expense. In the not-too-distant future it’s conceivable that those parts will be ready to grab from a download tab on, say, Electrolux’s website.

Which is basically what I did from the Thingiverse. Except a bit less useful. Once I’d downloaded the file and converted it to the right file for my Lulzbot, I was ready to go. And then... nothing. Well, something. I hadn’t quite got the Z-axis (the up and down one) aligned properly and the thickness of my first layer didn’t look anything like the Lulzbot’s extensive manual suggested. I spent the next few days fiddling but I still couldn’t get it to come out as it should. The printer thought it was printing, but wasn’t.

Finally, after a few more aborted attempts and fiddles with the print nozzle, I was able to print my first object from the Thingiverse – a tiny little iPhone stand. A small achievement. But, given my terror at the idea of having to make the damn thing work, something I was proud of. Now, whether my expertise would spread to making some of the more headline-grabbing objects (notably, a .22 calibre rifle) is another matter.

But, if I can get the damn thing working armed mainly with patience, there’s no reason you couldn’t. The only problem, for now, with home 3D printing is the price tag. You’d have to make a lot of mini iPhone stands to make this worth £1,400 quid.

Keep it simple

The next generation of 3D printers are palatable to most computer users. Here are three of the easiest to use

Lulzbot Taz, £1,422

lulzbot.com

 

This is the  next generation machine to the AO-101 I used. The slick black Taz doesn’t need any tools to get going and prints with a range of different materials, including a wood filament. As well as being much less noisy than its predecessor, it looks a lot less like a school project made out of Meccano, too.

Makerbot Replicator 2, £1,422

Makerbot.com

 

Bre Pettis, one of three  co-founders of Makerbot Industries is the Steve Jobs of the 3D print world. Their machines, like the Lulzbot, build on the early hardware of the RepRap project and seem to be the closest to making a big crossover to ordinary punters. Their latest machine, which costs the same as the Taz, is the Replicator 2. It looks like a sci-fi microwave but its self-containedness could help make it the Apple II to Pettis’s Jobs. 

Velleman K8200, £699

Maplin.co.uk

 

Compared to those two  US kits, this (relatively) affordable offering looks a  bit feeble. But Maplin were rightly proud to boast about the fact that they were the first UK high street retailer to start selling 3D printers.  Also, unlike the Lulzbot and Makerbots, you have to fully assemble this one yourself (which Maplin reckons will take around ten hours).  Looks like a good starter  for curious amateurs  – though you’ll have to  buy a £45 tool-bundle to  put it together.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Pink Floyd on stage at Live 8 in 2005. From left to right: David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright
music New album The Endless River set to overtake boyband for most pre-ordered of all-time
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Technical Business Analyst/SQL Development - London - Permanent - £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Telecoms Engineer - Telecoms Admin - £35,000 - 5 month FTC

    £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 5 month Fixed Term Contract - Telecommunicati...

    Telecoms Engineer - Telecoms Administrator - London - £26,000

    £26000 per annum + 25 days holiday & further benefits: Ashdown Group: Telecomm...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama